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Is Washington losing Turkey?

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It seems that the relations between Washington and Ankara have only been poor in recent times.

There are a lot of unresolved issues and disputes, which intermittently cause crises, between the two countries.

The reason for the last negative turn of events was the arrest of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor who worked in Turkey’s Aegean region. In fact, the pastor was arrested in October 2016, as part of an investigation into the coup attempt that took place in July 2016. The Turkish authorities accuse the pastor of having links with the Gulen Movement, which was declared a terrorist organization in Turkey. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, has dedicated several tweets to Brunson, in which he expressed confidence in his innocence and called for his immediate release.

Some observers believe that the Turkish side would like to swap the pastor for the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has been living for many years in exile in the US. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, commenting on the situation around Andrew Brunson, mentioned the Turkish preacher accused of orchestrating an attempted military coup in Turkey and lamented that the US refused to extradite him to Turkey.

In late July, Brunson was moved to house arrest, due to health problems.

Despite the request of the American side, Turkey refused to release the pastor eventually. Although there had been cases of detention of French and German citizens on similar charges, they were released after the intervention of their countries.Obviously, Trump, known for his impulsiveness, was not pleased with this approach of the Turkish authorities. He repeatedly threatened to impose sanctions. Perhaps even Trump imposing sanctions on Turkey expects to receive an apology from the Turkish leader, as in the case with Putin after the Turkish fighters shot down a Russian military plane that violated Turkish airspace. Finally, at the beginning of this month, the US Treasury Department adopted personal sanctions against the two Turkish ministers, it was an extraordinary measure, not every day the US imposes sanctions against members of the government of one of the NATO countries.

This was followed by a sharp increase in duties on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum, later, on August 10.

This step was a severe blow for the Turkish economy and the Turkish national currency which were far from their glory days. The Turkish lira went into free fall. The Turkish government is trying to stabilize the lira, but Erdogan’s public speeches are increasingly contributing to the depreciation of the lira.

Following these events, the Turkish police put in place additional security measures around the house of Andrew Brunson in Izmir.

Some people think it is justified that Erdogan uses this situation to rally the divided Turkish society around him. The Turkish society still has a memory of how the Western powers used Christian missionaries to interfere in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire. I do not think that the case of Andrew Brunson has any correlation with what happened in the times of the Ottoman Empire, but propaganda skillfully completes the missing parts of stories …

Immediately after the escalation of the crisis, President Erdogan published an article in the NYT.This shows that he realizes the importance of the US, American public opinion and is ready for dialogue. I would advise him to write his column in the NYT on a regular basis, so the American audience will have the opportunity to learn first-hand about Turkey’s position. It should also be noted that Erdogan’s government has a severe problem in building communications with the American political establishment. After Erdogan came to power, the few Turkish lobby groups that were in the US suspended their activities, Erdogan’s government was unable to build its lobbying activities in the US, unlike, for example, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel or even China. The lack of such activities widened the gap between Ankara and Washington.

As for the economy, it would be wrong to say that the US was responsible for all the economic problems in Turkey, as announced by the White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett live on MSNBC. Hassett said President Donald Trump’s decision to double tariffs on Turkish steel was “a tiny, tiny fraction” of Turkey’s gross domestic product, “so for the currency to drop 40 percent is a sign that there are a lot of economic fundamentals that are out of whack in that country.” He also added a remark on the political processes in Turkey and their impact on the economy. “When a country loses its connection to liberal democracy then you don’t really know what’s going to happen next to the economy and I think there is a lot of uncertainty,” Hassett said. The Turkish economy has been going through really tough times for the last 5-6 years. Large foreign investors are skeptical about Turkey’s investment opportunities; this is due to the following factors:

* Economic and political instability in the country.

* Strong outflow of capital and a drop in the purchasing power of citizens.

* Confrontation of the government with disagreeable businesspersons and use of courts for their prosecution and confiscation of assets.

* Complete loss of independence of Turkish courts and falling under the control of the executive power.

* Permanent Islamization of the country and a gradual moving away from the secular state.

For a long time, Erdogan’s government was on good terms with the Gulen Movement, the business empire controlled by this religious sect has grown considerably, members of the sect managed to infiltrate the courts and the prosecutor’s office. The Gulen Movement used these opportunities not only against Kemalist politicians and public figures but also against businesspersons whom they disapproved. When Erdogan started destroying the business empire of the Gulen Movement, this certainly could not but affect the Turkish economy.

Moreover, many wealthy people in Turkey have recently sold and are selling their property in the country and move to other countries, and these contribute to the outflow of capital from the country. Some local businessmen who are close to the authorities acquire these assets and attract foreign loans in dollars and euros for this, these transactions, along with the current debts of Turkish corporations, increase the pressure on the foreign exchange market. The growing Turkish foreign debt and its servicing become an expensive pleasure every year.

It is difficult to predict how this crisis will develop and whether it will lead to greater problems for both countries. Especially since the reins are held by impulsive leaders in both countries.

However, it is worth noting that the problems in the relations between the two countries should not be linked to Trump, he inherited these problems from the previous administration. Besides, as early as 2003, some serious disagreements emerged between Turkey and the US, when Turkey refused to participate in the Iraq campaign and refused to let US troops through its territory. In the short term, Turkey was able to show itself as an “independent player” in the long term, it was a blow to Turkey’s interests in Iraq, particularly, in Northern Iraq.

The parties have serious complaints against each other. I will try to touch upon these issues briefly.

Syria – PYD / YPG

Some politicians in Washington believe that only the US can have “national interests”, other countries cannot have any. This approach primarily harms the US itself and plays into the hands of Iran, Russia and, to some extent, China.

Turkey accuses US-backed Kurdish paramilitary groups PYD / YPG of being affiliated with PKK. The US spent vast amounts of money on training, preparing, arming and supporting the Kurdish armed groups in the north of Syria. Millions of dollars of American taxpayers were spent on supporting armed groups that fight the US ally in the region and are affiliated with the PKK terrorist organization that the US itself put on the terrorist list in 1997.It is worth noting that this process did not begin under the current administration but under the Obama administration. This can be considered as one of a series of mistakes by the Obama administration in the Middle East, which later led to an increase in the influence of Russia and Iran in this region.

The fact that Germany, which supported the Kurdish groups, was late and could not take part in the division of spheres of influence in the region is understandable, but the US is a world superpower and has an ally in the region closely linked to Washington in military terms. For the long-term interests of the US in the region, it is merely disadvantageous to exchange the NATO country with the second largest army after the US for the paramilitary Kurdish groups affiliated with terrorists.

Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 systems and problems with the F-35

Turkey as a broad enough country in a complex region continually needs to update and improve its air defense. Turkey’s attempt to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems turned into a scandal. The US is unhappy that a NATO country is buying Russian weapons. However, this deal has an interesting background. Before considering the purchase of S-400 missile defense systems as an option, Turkey had long tried to buy similar weapons from NATO allies, but no one agreed to sell…As the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in his interview, Turkey had been trying to buy similar weapons from the US for almost ten years, but the US refused Turkey.

It is strange that another NATO member Greece has Russian weapons, particularly, the S-300 missile defense system. However, this does not cause a sharp discontent of NATO or the US. If the US believes that the purchase of S-400 missile defense systems is a problem, then Turkey is not to blame. The consistent disregard by Turkey’s allies for its need for such weapons pushed Turkey to look for an alternative.After the deal between Russia and Turkey was concluded, the US agreed to discuss the sale of Patriots to Turkey, but in exchange asked Ankara to cancel the S-400 deal. The Turkish side stated that they did not exclude the purchase of the Patriot defense systems, but they would not cancel the deal with Russia.

On August 13, the US President Donald Trump signed into law a defense policy bill that will hold up the transfer to Turkey of 100 F-35 fighter jets. Despite the fact that Turkey had paid for them. It seems that this step will further aggravate the crisis between the countries and will further push Turkey towards Russia and China.

Assistance to Iran in evading US sanctions

This, probably, is one of the most severe claims of Washington against Ankara. According to the American side, this is a whole chain of “backdoors” created by large Turkish banks in order to bypass the financial sanctions imposed on Iran.

The essence of the claim is that Turkish state banks took an active part in laundering Iranian money received from oil trade and sending cash and gold to Iran. The entire scheme was coordinated by an Iranian businessman of Azerbaijani descent, Reza Zarrab, who was married to a well-known Turkish singer.Zarrab is now appearing as a prosecution witness and claims that the current president of Turkey was aware of this scheme. This is quite a serious charge. Zarrab also claims that he paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to the Turkish minister and other high-ranking officials for their help. It is suggested that through the scheme organized by Zarrab a couple of Turkish banks passed 100 billion dollars from Iran. It is strange that there was a loophole in the sanctions system for a while and, although the Obama administration knew about it, they were reluctant to close this secret passage. The investigation into this case is still ongoing in the US. In May 2018, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager of “Halk Bank” who was involved in this scheme, was sentenced by an American court to 32 months of imprisonment.

This episode also exacerbates the relations between the US and Turkey as allies.

Refusal to purchase Iranian energy resources and new sanctions against Iran

After the US imposed new sanctions on Iran and asked the countries importing Iranian oil and gas to refuse these purchases, the Turkish authorities said they would not follow these sanctions and would not stop importing Iranian oil and gas. We were witnessing a repetition of the events of 2003 when Turkey refused to become a part of the coalition against Iraq. Now Ankara is stepping on the same rake. Defending Iran, Turkey deprives itself of the right to vote in the future, when the winners will share the “Iranian inheritance.” Iran has never been an ally or even a good neighbor of Turkey, Iranian propaganda has actively opposed Turkey, Iran has almost never helped Turkey to fight PKK terrorists, Iran and Turkey found themselves on opposite sides of the barricade in Syria. Now Turkey has a unique chance to use the issue of sanctions against Iran to solve problems with the US and to exert pressure on Iran to limit its destructive activity in the region.

In the coming months, we will learn how the Turkish-American relations will move forward. I would like to believe that both sides will have the wisdom and patience to step back a little and try to agree. So far, the actions of both sides have played into the hands of exclusively Iran and Russia, putting the stability of the whole region at risk.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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